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On Movies: 'Kill Your Darlings' misses the joy

The truish story told in "Kill Your Darlings" -- a dark miasma of poetry, sex and violence set in the 1940s among the writers who would later be called "the Beats" -- takes place entirely in New York. But it began in St. Louis.

Lucien Carr, a sophomore at Columbia University in 1944, was a member of a prominent St. Louis family. He was intellectually brilliant but troubled and outwardly haughty -- as played by Dane DeHaan, he almost seems to have stepped out of the pages of "Brideshead Revisited." His tiny circle of friends in New York included two somewhat older young men from St. Louis -- William Burroughs (Ben Foster, with a snarl that sounds strikingly like Old Bull himself) and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a childhood friend of Burroughs.

Eight years before, Kammerer had been Carr's counselor at an elite St. Louis private school and had become obsessed with him. Kammerer had followed Carr to New York, among other places, but Carr persistently rejected his advances with a kind of flirtatious disdain. The relationship between Carr and Kammerer was a complicated one, with mixtures of love and hate on both sides, of stalking and luring, and the film does a good job of showing us the Freudian tangle of emotions between the two men that led to the film's tragic conclusion.

Completing the quintet of main characters is wide-eyed, mom-haunted freshman poet Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, who seems to be in over his head in the role) and novelist Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a rugged, hard-drinking former football player who seeks ecstasy through the rapid manipulation of lovers, typewriters and motor vehicles.

As a character study, the movie is interesting, with particularly good performances by Foster as the quintessentially cool Burroughs and Hall as the frantic, guilt-ridden, boy-possessed Kammerer. But "Kill Your Darlings," which is quite dark both metaphorically and literally, fails to capture the sheer joy these extraordinary young men found -- according to many biographical and literary sources -- in meeting one another and recognizing kindred and complementary spirits.

The story of the tragedy of Kammerer and Carr has been told many times, including in a novel by Kerouac and Burroughs entitled "And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks." Although I would recommend "Kill Your Darlings" to anyone interested in the Beats, the spirit of the times and personalities is better captured in the luridly revealing pages of "Hippos" or in some of the early novels of Kerouac, such as "The Town and the City" and "The Vanity of Dulouz."

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement